Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

It’s a cliché, but also a fundamental truth, that few of us have lived through a year as disruptive as 2020. Granted, humankind has seen worse cataclysms: world wars, the Black Plague, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression.

But the fallouts from the year of Covid-19 are still emerging and some may take years to manifest. The emotional and psychological impacts of the pandemic have already proven to be profound and how they might affect road behaviour and safety is of particular interest to me. It should be of concern to the business sector in general for a number of reasons, not least because of SA’s lamentable record of traffic accidents.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1.35-million people’s lives are cut short as a result of road traffic crashes globally each year. More than 90% of road traffic deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, with the highest death rates occurring in Africa.

Automobile Association of SA (AA) CEO Willem Groenewald points out that SA has a higher death toll over the holiday period — a few weeks away — than the UK and Australia combined have over an entire year.

About 95% of these accidents are due to human error. Driving puts each of us in charge of a lethal weapon, and because we see our abilities, and those of others, through the fallible lens of our humanity, we often forget our duty of care.

The AA’s statistics show that most SA motorists believe they’re pretty good behind the wheel, even though our accident statistics show quite the opposite. For example, 54% of SA drivers believe they’re above average or near perfect at driving in rain, and no less than 55%, 74% and 77% believe they have similar prowess driving at night, for long distances and on highways, respectively.

A constant, heightened state of fight-or-flight awareness can fuel road rage and aggression, with tragic results

The over-estimation of our abilities has a huge, tragic toll: in 2015, road accidents cost SA R142bn or 3.4% of GDP. Though no new studies in this regard have been done since, it is likely this amount has increased to somewhere closer to R180bn, money that can be much better used for other purposes.

Just one indicator of the scale of that cost: a 1% reduction in crashes translates to 83,000 fewer crashes, 141 fewer deaths and R163bn returned to the economy. That would fund 10 schools, six hospitals or 470 bursaries, according to AA estimates.

Nearly 40% of road deaths in the past decade have been pedestrians. Part of the reason for this is inadequate mass transportation, including a failed urban rail system, which sees 21% of employees and 63.4% of pupils walking to work or school. Only 40% of employees drive their own vehicles to work.

Addressing this shortcoming requires a multipronged approach: improved public transport, certainly, as well as robust law-enforcement and harsh penalties for offenders. Lawmakers and vehicle manufacturers also have a responsibility to ensure that unsafe vehicles aren’t imported or produced here.

We simply can’t allow unsafe vehicle imports, and all role players have an obligation to inform the market of its right to expect vehicles that meet minimum safety standards. Over the past several decades, the automotive industry has spent a vast amount of resources developing robust, comprehensive processes to ensure we design and deploy safe vehicles, because we care about the safety of our customers.

Driving is 85% mental, so we need a fundamental shift in outlook when get behind wheel. Driver-assist features are supplemental and do not replace the driver’s attention, judgment and need to control the vehicle. Driving skills training takes a scientific approach towards behaviour, attitude, awareness, motivation and skills behind the wheel. Paradoxically, the more skilled students become, the more aware they are aware of their limitations, and the limitations of their vehicle.

MasterDrive MD Eugene Herbert says it also helps accelerate the learning curve that might normally happen over years on the road. For example: younger drivers may not register that a ball bouncing into the street in front of the car they’re driving may presage a child running into harm’s way.

Similarly, novice drivers don’t yet grasp that a vehicle travelling at 100km/h is covering 100m a second and cannot simply stop in a few seconds. That knowledge is generally gathered through experience, but can be learnt too.

We must view these facts within the context of the pandemic: Helena Nel, an industrial psychologist, has examined the impact on mental health of the Covid-19 shutdown, which she asserts has been huge and unprecedented. She cites one poll in which more than 70% of respondents felt 2020 was the most stressful year of their working lives, and 90% said work-related stress, anxiety and depression affected their home lives.

Poor mental health decreases productivity and decision-making at every level of an organisation and has a negative effect on home life. It can trigger a self-perpetuating cycle of loneliness, depression, burnout, lack of work-life balance and heightened stress. Few of us, Nel points out, leave that anxiety behind when we get behind the wheel: a constant, heightened state of fight-or-flight awareness can fuel road rage and aggression, with tragic results.

For employers, a focus on employee mental health and prevention of burnout has never been more crucial. Sincere employee engagement that facilitates a sense of belonging can help employees reconnect with their team and the organisation and allow safe spaces where personnel can voice their thoughts candidly.

And employers, team leaders and mentors can help nurture the self-awareness, with the help of industrial psychology professionals so that employees recognise why they feel the way they do, at work, at home and on the road.

The upcoming festive season could be one of avoidable trauma on our roads, as in years gone by, worsened by a year of tragedy. What is to be done? In the short term, robust law enforcement, and beyond that, a focus on safer vehicles, better mass transport infrastructure, and fundamental shifts in motorists’ mindsets, seeing driving not as a form of expression, but way to reach a destination safely.

• Hill is MD of Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa.

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